Many have questioned why the Taliban’s swift takeover appeared to catch US officials by surprise.
United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley, appearing before Congress on Tuesday, have acknowledged a series of failures that led to the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
“It is clear and obvious that the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted with the Taliban now in power in Kabul,” General Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee, warning that Afghanistan today appears headed towards civil war.
“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths that we didn’t fully comprehend,” Secretary Austin told senators.
“The fact that the Afghan army, that we and our partners trained, simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise and it would be dishonest to claim otherwise,” Austin said.
The Taliban entered Kabul on August 15 after a lightning-fast offensive across the country that saw little resistance from the Afghan forces the US had trained and supplied for years. The takeover prompted a large-scale evacuation of foreign citizens and vulnerable Afghans by several governments that was given a deadline of August 31 by the Taliban.
The comments of top US military officials, along with General Frank McKenzie, the head of Central Command who oversaw the withdrawal were the most extensive public comments from Pentagon leaders since the August 30 withdrawal.
Milley and McKenzie said they had warned that the Western-backed government in Kabul would fall if the US withdrew all troops.
“My analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal, without meeting specific and necessary conditions, risks losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging US worldwide credibility and could precipitate a general collapse of the NSF and the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover, or general civil war,” Milley said.
Milley called it a “strategic failure”.
General McKenzie said he, too, had assessed Kabul would fall if the US withdrew.
“My view is that 2,500 was an appropriate number to remain and that if we went below that number, in fact, we would probably witness a collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan military.”
A February 2020 deal reached by the administration of US President Donald Trump with the Taliban set May 1, 2021, as a date to fully withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan. The US pullout was supposed to be based on conditions fulfilled by the Taliban.
Milley told the Senate he had received an order from President Trump after the US election in November to proceed with the complete withdrawal of US troops. After discussing the risks with the White House, the order was revised to reducing US forces to 2,500, Milley said.
Milley also said the Taliban had not abided by the conditions of the agreement.
President Joe Biden conducted an interagency review upon taking office in January and in April announced a full US withdrawal, to be complete by September 11, then revised that date to August 31.
Austin and Milley faced particularly charged questions from Republicans, who have accused the Biden administration of misreading the situation in Afghanistan, failing to predict how quickly the Taliban would rise, and leaving the US more vulnerable to attacks from groups affiliated with ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Republicans have demanded more details on the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) suicide bombing near Kabul international airport that killed about 175 Afghans and 13 members of the US military in the waning days of the evacuation. Legislators are also expected to address the subsequent US drone attack that killed 10 Afghan civilians.
US military officials had initially said the August 29 bombing killed ISKP facilitators, but later retracted that claim and apologised, admitting they were civilians, including seven children.
“We need a full accounting of every factor and decision that led us to where we are today and a real plan for defending America moving forward,” wrote the committee’s ranking Republican, James Inhofe, in a lengthy list of questions about multiple aspects of the withdrawal given to the Pentagon last week.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously testified about the withdrawal before Congress, staunchly defending the administration’s actions, which included a last-minute airlift of some 120,000 people.
Advocates say thousands of vulnerable Afghans – including many who worked for the US government – have been left behind.
‘I don’t know if we’ll get answers’
Legislators asked how the US intelligence and military community failed to predict how quickly the Taliban would take the country.
“I did not foresee it to be days. I thought it would take months,” McKenzie said on the collapse of the Afghan military.
While criticism of the withdrawal extends across party lines, Democrats have argued that Trump bears a large part of the blame stemming from his initial withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, which did not include the Afghan government in power at the time or require a political resolution between the warring parties.
Democrats have pointed to a years-long US failure to build an Afghan military that could stand up to the Taliban.
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, a project that monitors the so-called US “war on terror”, said the officials will have to answer how the “the multibillion-dollar defence and intelligence establishment” misread the situation in Afghanistan when monitoring groups were aware of the weakness of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s ability to advance quickly.
“The reason you won’t get an honest answer is simple. Either the DoD didn’t know what was happening (admit that their leaders failed), or DoD leaders lied about the security situation to cover for the withdrawal/hope they could leave before collapse,” he wrote in a series of tweets on Tuesday,
On Wednesday, the top Pentagon officials will appear before the House Armed Services Committee.